Kurtág 80th-Birthday Celebration: Hipartita & Játékok

Hipartita [UK premiere]
Játékok [selection]

Hiromi Kikuchi (violin)
György Kurtág & Márta Kurtág (pianino)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 November, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The third and final recital in the Wigmore Hall’s celebration of György Kurtág’s 80th-birthday was a double-bill like few others.

Seemingly unadvertised beforehand, the first half brought a UK premiere for Hipartita (2004): the composer’s musical thank-you to violinist Hiromi Kikuchi for her contribution to performances of his works he has declared definitive. A ‘thanks’ from Kurtág is customarily brief, but the eight movements of this work – while generally short in themselves – comprise a 29-minute whole that, complemented by its density of musical thought, makes for an ‘epic’ in relative terms.

The sarabande-like gravity of the opening ‘Sostenuto’ is followed by the grating irony of a homage to Arthur Rimbaud, then by the inexorable tread of ‘Oreibasia’ (after the Maenads of Greek mythology) and the expressive austerity of an ‘in memoriam’ to György Gonda. The ironic fatalism of an oblique homage to Heraclitus precedes the fugitive sombreness of the sixth ‘Teneramente’ movement, then a ‘Perpetuum mobile’ of unnerving virtuosity builds an inexorable momentum carried over into the final ‘Heimweh’ – a homage to fellow-composer Peter Eötvös that forms the raptly inward epilogue.

Hipartita was supremely well realised by Kikuchi – whose progress across the stage, and part of the way back, as she traversed the sheets of score, provided a telling visual analogy to the ‘journey’ of the music: as distilled and unequivocal as any yet made by this most uncompromising of composers.

The second half consisted of a recital of extracts from Játékok, played by György and Márta Kurtág. Commenced during the early 1970s, the eight books (thus far) of these ‘Games’ comprise pieces of often-extreme brevity, their range of expression equally all-encompassing. Music poised between the discipline of an exercise and the spontaneity of a whim: ‘games’ as a battle between technique and inspiration. Other than trying these pieces out for oneself, the most pleasurable way to encounter them is via performances from the composer and his wife – in a miscellany representing the outcome of their recitals together.

Here, however, their recital comprised 16 pieces of around 25 minutes – still enough to provide an overview of the expressive territory explored by this diary in sound, with no obvious parallels in its stark honesty. Moreover, they played on an upright piano (pianino, as described) with the ‘quiet’ pedal permanently depressed – as if emulating a private run-through at which the public happened to be eavesdropping – and set with their backs to the auditorium, which gave the uncanny sensation of a Magritte sketch in motion.

The enactment of a ritual was palpable, reinforced by the standing of each player ‘in attendance’ on the other when only one pianist was called for, but such a presentation left too little room for the music to work its purely musical effect. The concept might have worked better had the performance taken place in more intimate surroundings (the Bechstein Room, perhaps) rather than the Wigmore’s main auditorium – where every extraneous noise, notably a coughing fit that continued long after its source had headed to the foyer, acted as an additional barrier between the sound and its reception.

Of course, it was a pleasure to re-encounter the Kurtágs in a miscellany of such pieces – with three Bach transcriptions as formal and expressive signposts to structure the listening process. Should they be able and willing to do this again at the time of the composer’s 85th birthday, the manner of presentation could profitably be reassessed. As it was, the sequence made for an intriguing second half, and the concert a fine ending to a series that did justice to the composer and his artistic legacy.

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